I’m reading the new autobiography So, Anyway by Monty Python member, John Cleese. While telling a story, he invokes Bartleby, The Scrivener by Herman Melville. And the quote he invokes is, “I would prefer not to”. Bartleby says this when his boss asks him to do something. When he says, “I would prefer not to,” the boss is stunned. It got me to thinking about ways in which to use the phrase “I would prefer not to.” I’ve come up with two ways. The first is a declarative sentence.
* “I would prefer not to” listen to any more lying politicians. (An oxymoron, if you ask me.)
* “I would prefer not to” ever again eat cuttlefish.
* “I would prefer not to” ever again have to put a pet to sleep.
* “I would prefer not to” ever again have to listen to a husband and wife bicker in public.
* “I would prefer not to” ever again have a male stripper named Flabio, who weighs 300 pounds, give me a lap dance.
Those are just a smidgen of my “I would prefer not to’s”. Those were not the “I would prefer not to” statements that Melville was writing about. He was talking about the stress induced by Bartleby on his boss by simply refusing to do his job. What would happen to one’s marriage if one partner decided the “I would prefer not to rule” applies?
* Dear, would you mind not spending so much money? “I would prefer not to”.
* Dear, would you mind not calling me dick nose in public? “I would prefer not to”.
* Then can you refrain from incessantly whistling “way down yonder in the land of cotton” while I’m listening to Pitbull? “I would prefer not to” stop whistling this catchy song so you can listen to Pitbull.
*Dear, what WOULD you prefer to do? “I would prefer not to” do anything that requires me to do something.
I wouldn’t try this with a spouse. They might “prefer not to” be married to you any longer. As a matter of fact, I was discussing this with a friend and she says her husband wants the phrase engraved on his headstone. This is what got Bartleby in trouble. He refused to do anything. The landlord sold the building. He refused to move. The boss asked him to move in with him. He refused his offer preferring the status quo. Poor Bartleby ended up in prison and died from starvation because he refused to eat. He “would prefer not to.”
The only moral to this story that I can see is that doing something is always better than doing nothing. What would you “prefer not to “do?
An aside…Once upon a time in my past life, I taught Advanced Placement American Lit to HS juniors. It was a real nuisance after discussing this story because, inevitably, when I asked them to do something, “I would prefer not to.”